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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday Festival: Inclusive Language

Ready for a wee break from Holy Week sermonizing? Here's a question for you all.

Anonymous says,

I recently received an invitation from a male pastor who I did not previously know. He expressed familiarity with my ministry, which is feminist, and in which I use inclusive language as a normative practice (although he did not acknowledge those aspects). When I preach I use a combination of some gender neutral for God and the people of God and some explicitly feminine for both: "We are women and men made in Her image."

The invitation is for a celebration of women in his congregation. I am welcome to use any text - they are not a lectionary church. But for my information he sent me some promotional material about the event. They are celebrating women as "being made in His image." I don't have to preach from Gen 1:26-27, but I think I will. I was a bit mystified by the clear openness to a feminist preacher yet normative use of male language in the congregation.

Also, they have moved from KJV to NRSV which is a big deal in their context. (They are Baptist and in the South, but not affiliated with the Southern Baptists.) And the PR shared he is moving towards making a Deacon's Board with women and men with the same responsibilities. He's also inviting one of his feminist seminary professors to come in several weeks after me for congregational teaching.

I'm curious how much inclusive language work (gender neutral and/or explicitly feminine, particularly for God) members of RevGals would do in this situation.
What advice would you offer to Anonymous? Let us know in the comments!


  1. My first reaction, "Good God, don't use Her gendered name in this context!"

    I would use gender-neutral language exclusively: "Made in God's image." In my experience in similar contexts, the lack of male language will be enough to knock their socks off and will enable the congregation to hear the rest of your message.

    If it's really important to use feminine pronouns, then I'd at least give the person who invited you a heads up so that pastoral conversations can start/continue outside of the preaching moment. It would be sad for the congregation to take two steps back from change that feels like it's coming too quickly.

  2. I would probably avoid gendered pronouns, but if you are celebrating women being made in God's image, I think focusing on passages of Scripture where the imagery of God is more feminine is certainly appropriate.

  3. While I use, pretty much exclusively, non-gendered pronouns for God, I was leaning a different way when I read this. If a he slips out, it's a slip. If a she slips in it's purposeful, but very very rare. That's a blog for another day. I think it seems like you are being invited because of who you are and what you feel your call is. It doesn't surprise me that they had some male pronouns in the literature because even if they are moving toward gender equality they aren't there completely yet. They're still on the road and in their mind "His" sounds more personal than "God's" and "Her" is probably uncomfortable still. However, you're a guest; you're not the permanent pastor/preacher in this context. There's a little more leeway for you, and I think you should be true to who you are and how you speak/preach.

    It sounds like there is some good education going on in the weeks prior to you being there. Are the professors folks you know and can talk to about your piece in the puzzle? That might be helpful if they can lay a little groundwork before you are preaching. I also think it's a good idea to talk to the pastor who invited you about your normal language, his intention in inviting you, and what sould be helpful (for both you) leading up to this celebratory weekend. Together you might find a good middle way that is beneficial for all involved.

  4. It sounds like this pastor is intentionally leading his congregation towards increasing gender equality - hooray!

    This likely has to be done in careful, measured steps.

    I think recognizing that they are in a process and you are contributing to it will be helpful in determining just how big of a step to present to them.


  5. gender neutral is a baseline, in my opinion...perhaps you can occasionally slip in feminine pronouns when talking about the Spirit, first mentioning that in Hebrew the word Spirit is a feminine noun, so using "she" or "her" is perfectly correct. (sometimes I have actually told people that it's the most "conservative" thing I can say, because it's retaining the oldest tradition...LOL. I only say that when I already know people, though!)

    I like the suggestion about calling the other people who are coming later and talking about what parts you feel you each might play. Or just call the pastor and ask him what his hopes and direction are for this experience in the congregation? You don't have to follow it necessarily, of course, but at least you know what the hopes/dreams/plans are and how you might fit in.

  6. This is a providential topic! Visit to learn about the male priests with whom I served at the Dignity Dayton branch and the multifaith national coverage Holy Thursday press conference and protest outside the Episcopal church that continues to rent their basement to Dignity Dayton. All RevGals who don't have to preside at Holy Thursday evening services tomorrow and can get to Dayton and join our multifaith press conference and protest outside Christ Episcopal Church. Others who can't please speak out on your blog and ask your judicatory to speak out to Dignity USA and Dignity Dayton/Living Beatitudes Community. Why do you want them to: LIVE THE BEATITUDES--TELL THE TRUTH!?

    They would go neutral and no farther. God is Parent, Father, but not Mother and not She! Cause if God is Mother and She women and girls are like God and should not be abused. And women can be bishops and priests and pastors which means moms can be bishops and priests and pastors. And moms--God and female clergy alike--kick a--on people who hurt children and people who lie about it. And now we know why two male priests covered for their friend for ten years and it took a woman bishop and priest who is a proud RevGal to take him down.

    LGBT RevGals and allies please alert your local area that no child is safe at the Holy Week and Easter services of any branch of Dignity USA natiowide because Mark Matson and national leadership are either complicit in mortal sin or grossly negligent in enforcing their own supposed zero tolerance policy. Can you find it on the website? I can't.

    Dignity USA has betrayed LGBT families and individuals who trust Dignity to protect children and LGBT pastors fighting false allegations that gays are the abusers. When Mark Matson of Dignity USA and Dignity Columbus said that he didn't know till Tuesday that Ellis Harsham who has celebrated mass at Dignity Dayton belonged on the Ohio Sex Offender registry but that he did not suggest DD to suspend Ellis or Ellis to resign he proved himself unworthy to lead Dignity USA and so is anyone else who knew the truth and failed to tell it.

  7. I would preach in the way that you are comfortable. I bet he did/does know of your choice to be inclusive and anything less is not you and just might undermine what he is seeking.

    My ears are so attuned to inclusive language that I almost want to "correct" those who continue to use masculine for everyone in the Bible and in their sermons, etc.

    Be you.

  8. As a mainline Southerner I would suggest you use gender neutral language, but NOT refer to God as Her or She. If you offend your listeners they will not hear anything you say and you will not be welcomed to their pulpit again. Unfortunately, this is the reality in the South.

  9. I try to avoid pronouns, but have been known to refer to the Spirit as She on occasion and with intention. If I want to indicate God's role in the Trinity, I say God or the Holy Parent. (Creator is a word that limits function.) I find that trying to think about speaking without pronouns leads to some creative and more descriptive imagery.

  10. From the question-asker: The many strong negative reactions here surprise me. SheRev, I really disagree: You are speaking for yourself when you say that "He is a slip. She is intentional." I don't say He; that is not normative language for me and hasn't been for over a decade. I say She and God normatively in preaching and liturgy. That's what I do. A number of you have identified the issue in terms of what's appropriate. I think that is the question: Is it appropriate for me to be who I am who God has called me to be, the person they invited? Or should I dial myself back to where I think they are to not push them too much. It's a straw-person question with problematic binaries, I grant you. I did take SheRev's suggestion to email the prof who will be coming after me. No word yet. I also recognize what is at the heart of Rev. Dr. Laura's concern, I believe we do harm when we affirm God is male, men are the image of a male God and women are the image of a male god but we can't say that God is female and women and men are the image of a female God or image of a God who describes Godself and/or is described in the scriptures as female and male. If we can't even say "she" how are we preaching a gospel of inclusion? How can we - or do you all preach a colored God, a queer Christ, a disabled redeemer?

  11. Thanks, all, for the good suggestions and comments. As another mainline Southerner, I agree with Anonymous. Just offering a taste of gender-neutral language will be HUGE.

  12. I think you have to use the voice God calls you to use. For some of us that's pastoral, for others prophetic, for some a combination of the two. In this situation, you've been invited *because* your feminist Christian voice will be prophetic. Do your thing. The pastor who invited you may have to do some work after you are there; I'm guessing he knows that, and if he's not, lessons may need to be learned all around.

  13. I am from a non-SBC Baptist church in the South, and I agree with what others have suggested. As a female preacher in a context where that has not been seen or celebrated much, you yourself are a much more pointed and powerful sign of the inclusivity of the divine than even the words you speak. It sounds like the pastor is working hard and with sensitivity to bring his congregation along further than they currently are. Gender neutral language would be appropriate, but explicitly feminine God language could do more harm than good at this early stage of the game.

    How wonderful that the pastor has invited you to participate in this hopeful moment in his congregation. Many blessings as you do so!

  14. Wonderful comments! Speaking from one of those non liturgical and moving-towards-equality kinds of denominaitons--it is WONDERFUL that you are invited. I am rejoicing. I agree, use gender neutral language. That in itself is new to them. Feminine pronouns for God may have the result of distracting them, ("Did she say "her?") and thay may like or dislike it but probably miss your next sentences.

    And congratulations, and I will be praying!

  15. I have been following the example of one of my colleagues who uses "God" in place of He/She. As she says, God created humanity it GOD'S image, male and female. Since God is both, it is our finiteness that clips our understanding.

    This church probably has some people angry at "The Shack" for suggesting that God could be anything other than a white/Jewish male. So while they are making measured teeny tiny babysteps of progress, I would continue to feed them by little bites of info.

    You could also bring in Scriptures which speak of the nurturing, sheltering, nursing images of God.


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